Rotherham, ‘political correctness’ and child protection

By Savi Hensman
September 8, 2014

There has been widespread anger since an inquiry revealed that at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited in Rotherham from 1997-2013. Yet many adults in Britain are still in denial about the extent and seriousness of child sexual abuse.

Home secretary Theresa May claimed that “institutionalised political correctness” was partly to blame, a widely-made claim. This is odd, given the macho, sometimes crudely sexist, atmosphere exposed in the report, by Professor Alexis Jay.

However it did highlight the risks when a few, mainly male, ‘leaders’ are treated as representatives of whole communities. The abusers in this instance were mainly of Pakistani descent and (at least nominally) Muslim though, nationally, perpetrators are found in every community.

Some of those in responsible positions who tried to cover up such activities pretended that investigating such crimes thoroughly would upset community relations. Ongoing revelations raise serious concerns about their motives. In reality, as the report points out, Asian children were also being abused.

The hard-hitting findings overlap to some extent with those of other inquiries into child abuse, especially on child sexual exploitation (CSE). This involves under-18s (or a third party) receiving something (for example, food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, affection, gifts, money) as a result of performance of sexual activities. Gangs may be involved and technology such as mobile phones, may be used.

A 2012 report by the children’s commissioner for England pointed out the extent of the problem but senior government sources described this as “hysterical and half-baked”. The Rotherham report makes it harder to ignore and provides useful information for those who want to protect children from harm in Britain and beyond.

From a sample of case-files examined in depth, many of the children had repeatedly gone missing from home or local authority care. “Almost 50 per cent of children who were sexually exploited or at risk had misused alcohol or other substances (this was typically part of the grooming process), a third had mental health problems (again, often as a result of abuse) and two thirds had emotional health difficulties.”

Jay stated, “There were issues of parental addiction in 20 per cent of cases and parental mental health issues in over a third... There was a history of domestic violence in 46 per cent of cases. Truancy and school refusal were recorded in 63 per cent of cases.”

While some police were conscientious, a disturbing feature was their frequent indifference or contempt towards victims, whose distress sometimes resulted in ‘difficult’ behaviour, and unwillingness to crack down on perpetrators. This is all the more surprising given the links with drugs, guns and general criminality.

Disturbingly, “In a small number of cases... the victims were arrested for offences such as breach of the peace or being drunk and disorderly, with no action taken against the perpetrators of rape and sexual assault against children.” At a case conference for a 12-year-old abused by five adults, a CID representative argued that this was not abuse because he thought the child had been ‘100 per cent consensual in every incident’”.

A council-supported outreach project did valuable work with survivors. But mainstream children’s services were under-resourced and burdened with box-ticking and reorganisation. Social workers tended to focus their limited resources on small children rather than those slightly older who were sexually exploited. Mental health care for survivors who needed it was often not readily available.

While there was some positive change following earlier critical reports, senior managers still largely failed to address the severity of the problem. Professional rivalry also played a part.

Far from providing leadership, council members were largely unhelpful or obstructive. Some showed worrying attitudes. Senior officers described how, regarding “Pakistani-heritage women fleeing domestic violence... a small number of councillors had demanded that social workers reveal the whereabouts of these women or effect reconciliation rather than supporting the women to make up their own minds.”

According to the report, “The prevailing culture at the most senior level of the Council, until 2009, as described by several people, was bullying and 'macho', and not an appropriate climate in which to discuss the rape and sexual exploitation of young people.” Improvements have since been made. But the report warns that progress may be halted as massive cuts hit council services.

Though “across the UK the greatest numbers of perpetrators of CSE are white men”, most known perpetrators in Rotherham were of Pakistani descent. Most identified victims were white but Asian children were also targeted.

“One of the local Pakistani women's groups described how Pakistani-heritage girls were targeted by taxi drivers and on occasion by older men lying in wait outside school gates,” Jay stated. “With hindsight, it is clear that women and girls in the Pakistani community in Rotherham should have been encouraged and empowered by the authorities to speak out about perpetrators and their own experiences as victims”.

According to Nazir Afzal, national Crown Prosecution Service lead on violence against women, quoted in the Guardian, “It is not the abusers’ race that defines them. It is their attitude to women”. He suggested that Asian men’s role in the night-time economy, for instance as minicab drivers or in takeaways, gave a small minority of sexual predators access to vulnerable youngsters.

Many people, white and minority ethnic, are reluctant to acknowledge the extent and seriousness of child abuse, including CSE, especially if perpetrators or their protectors are ‘respectable’ members of their own communities. Child protection remains a Cinderella service, heavily overstretched. Without proper resources and attitude change among the public and decision-makers in Rotherham and nationally, vulnerable children will continue to be repeatedly victimised.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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